Sunday, February 20, 2011

W.S. Merwin: "the natural world that includes us is sacred"

W.S. Merwin, now 83, is the poet laureate of the United States and twice recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. His neighbors in Hawaii are more likely to know the unassuming poet as the resident on his property near Haiku. As Rick Chatenever reports in a lengthy interview with Merwin in today's edition of the Maui News, that's fine. "Nobody knows who I am," the poet says. "They just know I'm a guy who plants trees."

Merwin recently spoke to a group as part of a new exhibit at Maui's Schaefer International Gallery, "The Legacy of Land." Chatenever's article reports how Merwin's childhood reading, enhanced by the poems his mother read to him, helped create in him a respect for the mystery of nature. "When we were kids, everyone wanted to grow up to be a fireman," he told the audience. "I wanted to grow up to be an Indian."

The interview is a gentle tracing of Merwin's path to self-discovery, from the poems of Longfellow to the Diamond Sutra, a journey from discovering the visions of William Blake to a meeting with Roshi Robert Aitken at the Maui Zendo in 1969. Here is an excerpt from the interview, which also includes several poems from Merwin's books The Rain in the Trees (1988) and The River Sound (1999). His most recent collection is The Shadow of Sirius (2009).

"There is a feeling in which the natural world that includes us is sacred ... Because we know, if there's anything sacred, that's it. You go out and spend two hours with the other forms of life around us, and you come back elated, feeling a great charge because this is basically what you wnt to be doing. Not to be cut off from it, but to be part of it." ...

"... We have made unnatural circumstances for ourselves, which are not good for us in the long run. The result is feeling cut off and superior. The way you justify feeling cut off is by saying, well, you're better than what you're cut off from. You think you have a right to treat it in any way you want." ...

"We've been doing that basically since the beginning of agriculture, when you start really disrupting the face of the earth ... Convenience is the bitch goddess of the modern world ... what people don't realize is, the faster you go, the less time you have."

"Hand tools were the beginning, and they're still part of us. ... Other tools replaced parts of our bodies, and they atrophied. Now they're replacing parts of our minds. We're becoming dependent on virtual reality, and that's dangerous."

(photo by Tom Sewell, Merwin Conservancy, from the Maui News)

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